Little is known of the Moroccan Jewish musician Abraham Arzouane other than the fact that he recorded for the Casablanca-based Olympia label in the 1950s. Part of the difficulty in properly identifying him is that his name was once so common in Morocco. Despite the scant archival material, there is just enough to work with in order to erect a historical scaffolding of Arzouane, the label, and the recording itself.
Olympia was one of a half-dozen independent 78 rpm record labels established in Morocco just before independence in 1956. The label was run out of Olympia-Radio, a radio distributor and recording outfit located in Casablanca at 66 Rue de Mazagan and run by a Mr. Azoulay-Elmaleh. While Olympia discs were recorded locally (likely on reel-to-reel tape), they were pressed in Paris by the Radium label. As can be seen on the printed label and on the dead wax at the center of their records, Olympia carried the same matrix number prefix––LSP––that Radium did.
Olympia seemed to serve as a hub for Moroccan Jewish artists specializing in the popular repertoire. Their catalogue included a great number of records by Albert Suissa and so too, Sam Fhima (sometimes spelled Fhimat). It is very likely that Arzouane also recorded popular music for the label. Given the label’s profile, Arzouane’s recording of religious music––of a Hebrew-language piyyut (liturgical poetry) on the subject of circumcision––feels like a departure. Of course, that Olympia and its artists were keen to cater to diverse audiences tempers any such confusion.
To get a better understanding of what exactly was happening on this recording, I turned to the master Andalusian violinist Elad Levi for help. He had much to say. For example, Levi quickly identified Arzouane’s mawwal (vocal improvisation) at the outset as belonging to the Moroccan Andalusian mode of hijaz al-kbir. He also recognized the song-text on the first side of the disc (which lasts until 2:51) as part of the Yom Kippur service while noting that it was usually sung to a different melody. In addition, he pointed to a certain warmth in the quality of both the vocalist and the instrumentalists, even if some faults of accuracy can be detected in their performance. That warmth is especially apparent on Midam Bessari (מדם בשרי ארים תרומה, on the second side of the recording), which picks up just after 2:51.
To be sure, Mr. Arzouane is deserving of a much fuller biography than the one provided. But while we await more information, his only known recording will no doubt help us pass the time.
Thank you again to Elad Levi for all of his brilliant insight. Thank you as well to Yossi Ohana who provided early and invaluable insight.
Title: Midam Bessari (מדם בשרי)
Artist: Abraham Arzouane
Issue Number(s): 1083 and 1084
Matrix Number: LSP 5456 and LSP 5457
Date of Pressing: c. 1950s